Yaakov Menken
Yaakov Menken
Managing Director, Coalition for Jewish Values

Intolerant Pluralism, American Style

The American liberal movements are pushing for greater recognition in Israel, including in Israeli media. Arguing his case, Conservative Rabbi Yizhar Hess wrote not long ago that “all streams of Judaism have beauty,” claiming all must be recognized in Israeli law. Rabbi Pesach Lerner responded that no one is being excluded, but that the “foreign ideal” of pluralism is no reason to change the classical definition of Judaism. To this, Rabbi Alan Silverstein, a colleague of Rabbi Hess, took offense. He asked, rhetorically, “Pluralism is not Jewish?

Actually, no, it’s not. In fact, American Jewish “pluralism” is not even tolerant, belying the principles implied by its name.

As Rabbi Silverstein expresses so clearly, the pluralism of the American liberal movements is not what the word implies—coexistence between those with different beliefs. The American Jewish “pluralism” is a rigid doctrine, one that requires acceptance of the notion that all Jewish “movements” are equally valid, that there is no right or wrong way to “do” Judaism. This sort of “pluralism,” of course, is directly at odds with Jewish tradition.

Judaism, as understood for millennia, has had a right and a wrong. Rabbi Silverstein cannot and does not contest the fact that Hillel, Maimonides and Rabbi Isaac Luria, those used by Rabbi Lerner to exemplify this point, clearly delineated voluminous right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.

Instead, Rabbi Silverstein takes selected quotes out of context to prove his case, ranging from the statement of Bamidbar Rabbah that “there are 70 faces to the Torah,” meaning 70 lessons to learn from every passage, to the Jerusalem Program of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which demands “mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people.” If the former meant that any religious ideology was valid “Judaism,” as Rabbi Silverstein would have us believe, then the very notion of a “Code of Jewish Law” would be meaningless, and no one could have announced that “the law follows the House of Hillel.” And if the Jerusalem Program demanded endorsement of all views as equally legitimate, every Knesset faction would have long since been evicted from the Zionist movement for combating the ideologies of the others.

In reality, this sort of “pluralism” is found nowhere else. Nowhere do we see that parties must agree that their own views are no more right than those of others. All of us believe that our own opinions are more correct, and will argue for them until we give up or are proven wrong. And that is how it should be.

What is worse, this illogical pluralism has been a tool used for the least pluralist or tolerant of purposes: to deliberately exclude observant Jews from various forums. The demand that all subscribe to the notion that there is no correct path immediately pushes out all those who follow the Talmud and legal codes. Were they with us today, Hillel, Maimonides and Rabbi Luria, to use Rabbi Lerner’s examples, would be rejected on precisely the same grounds.

To speak the language of pluralism while, in reality, seeking to ban traditional Jews, was the reaction of the American liberal movements to the surprising success of Eretz HaKodesh, the new charedi slate chaired by Rabbi Lerner that won twenty-five of the American Zionist Movement’s (AZM) seats in the 2020 World Zionist Congress. While Rabbi Silverstein now waxes poetic regarding how each group “is enjoined to encourage contributions to the Jewish state by those with whom in other settings we might disagree,” Mercaz USA and the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) did their level best to disenfranchise the American charedi community after the election.

In the interests of full disclosure, I both ran on the Eretz HaKodesh slate and led the defense of Eretz HaKodesh before the AZM Tribunal. I was stunned and appalled by what I saw in the filings by the aforementioned “pluralistic” movements.

The slates offered two different but equally preposterous “reasons” for the AZM to abrogate the democratic election results, and deny Eretz HaKodesh the seats to which it was entitled—and, indeed, eventually gained. ARZA claimed the Eretz HaKodesh slate’s “clear message is that only their understanding of Judaism, ritual and observance is authentic and valid and that any other is completely invalid.” In truth, there was no such message in any Eretz HaKodesh materials. ARZA targeted Eretz HaKodesh delegates and voters for maintaining the beliefs of traditional Judaism, in the same “pluralist” model used to disqualify observant Jews from Jewish communal affairs.

Mercaz USA, for its part, complained that Eretz HaKodesh offered an “invalid” definition of Zionism. That definition came from the traditional Jewish prayer book, which pleads: “may our eyes behold Your return to Zion with mercy.” Mercaz, though identifying itself as a Jewish religious movement, attempted to disqualify a definition of Zionism that rests upon the Jewish religion.

In short, Mercaz USA and ARZA demonstrated that their “pluralism,” as always, did not extend to Charedi Jews. When pressed, Eretz HaKodesh proved before the AZM Tribunal that its commitment to the Jerusalem Program is second to none, certainly not to the members of the slates challenging its bonafides.

It is time to pursue a genuine pluralism, one in which different ideologies are acknowledged and respected, rather than one which demands ideological conformity. That is what the Jerusalem Program actually demands of us.

One can hope that with Rabbi Silverstein’s help Mercaz will now turn a corner and live up to his words, “standing together… even if we disagree on matters of religious ideology.” It would be best if the American Conservative movement would take to heart both Rabbi Lerner’s advice and the cold statistics of the Pew Surveys, and focus its efforts upon rebuilding the flagging commitment of members of the American Conservative movement to Judaism and life in the Holy Land.

About the Author
Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Managing Director of the Coalition for Jewish Values, representing the voice of over 1000 traditional rabbis in matters of public policy. He is also the Director and Chief Architect of Project Genesis, creators of Torah.org and other leading web resources for Jewish outreach and education.
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